The poem 'Possessions' by Hart Crane contains a lot of what I call 'false units', that is, sentences which appear to have predicates describing subjects, but in reality the predicates do not modify the subject but some other unnamed entity. Put another way, the words which appear between periods are not related in the traditional manner that sentences are constructed. The sentences shift topics. Many poets do this, not just Crane, the earliest poet that I know of to do this is Stéphane Mallarmé. I would like to know if this device has already been named and agreed on by scholars. Further, who was the first poet to do this?

Let me give a concrete example. In 'Possessions', I divide the words into groups which seem to talk about one thing, though it is not easy to do. For example, 'the rain / that steals softy' and 'direction / and the key, ready to hand' belong to the same sentence but it is unlikely that if 'rain' is the subject of the sentence that 'direction and the key, ready to hand' modify or talk about rain. Another example, 'sifting / One moment in sacrifice (the direst) / Through a thousand nights' and 'the flesh / Assaults outright for bolts that linger / Hidden, —', although they belong to the same sentence it is unlikely that they are talking about the same thing.

Here is the text of the poem, with vertical dots dividing it into these groups:

Witness now this trust! the rain
That steals softly direction
And the key, ready to hand — sifting
One moment in sacrifice (the direst)
Through a thousand nights the flesh
Assaults outright for bolts that linger
Hidden, — O undirected as the sky
That through its black foam has no eyes
For this fixed stone of lust...

Accumulate such moments to an hour:
Account the total of this trembling tabulation,
I know the screen, the distant flying taps
And stabbing medley that sways —
And the mercy, feminine, that stays
As though prepared.

And I, entering, take up the stone
As quiet as you can make a man ...
In Bleecker Street, still trenchant^(sharp) in a void,
Wounded by apprehensions out of speech,
I hold it up against a disk of light —
I, turning, turning on smoked forking spires,
The city's stubborn lives, desires.

Tossed on these horns, who bleeding dies,
Lacks all but piteous admissions to be spilt
Upon the page whose blind sum finally burns
Record of rage and partial appetites.
The pure possession, the inclusive cloud
Whose heart is fire shall come,— the white wind raze
All but bright stones wherein our smiling plays.

########## UPDATE

Here, for example is an instance where Mallarme does it. A | marks a division of thought. Mallarme does it slightly different from Crane in that Mallarme keeps adding subclauses and there is only one verb in the present tense whereas Crane will use more than one. Also, Mallarme used different spacing which takes a lot of time to replicate. Since I scan all of my poetry into a digital format, and since scanning often messes up spacing, I have learned to not care about spacing and consequently do not now have Mallarme's original spacing. This is an excerpt from UN COUP DE DES JAMAIS N’ABOLIRA LE HASARD

A THROW OF THE DICE NEVER, EVEN WHEN TRULY CAST | IN THE ETERNAL CIRCUMSTANCE OF A SHIPWRECK’S DEPTH, | can be only the Abyss raging, whitened, | stalled beneath the desperately sloping incline of its own wing, | through an advance | falling back | from ill to take flight, | and veiling the gushers, | restraining the surges, | gathered | far within the shadow | buried deep | by that alternative sail, | almost matching its yawning depth to the wingspan, | like a hull of a vessel rocked from side to side.

  • Big questions. Crane was often more interested in sound and emotion than precise meaning. There are many literary devices used here: different types of ambiguity, non-standard word order, twisted syntax, transferred epithet, juxtaposition, asyndeton, stream of consciousness, non-standard punctuation, ellipsis, omitting the subject, apostrophe... It's a complex poem to analyse fully, and I'm not sure I agree with your syntactic analysis. You also ask a string of supplementary questions too. It might help to be a bit more precise and focused.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 5, 2022 at 10:03
  • 1
    I remember a riddle poem, that I recall as being quite old, that described a bunch of impossible things that all became quite ordinary when you broke the lines differently. Something like: I saw a dog that ate a star // High overhead I saw a car // Faster than horses, crawled a snail // Upon a tree branch, there was a whale ... (except of course much better than I can come up with in five minutes). Would this answer your question about an older poem of this type? Maybe somebody else will be able to locate it.
    – Peter Shor
    Aug 5, 2022 at 11:50
  • @StuartF, as for not agreeing with the syntatic analysis, it's too difficult to justify. For example, you could make an argument that Through a thousand nights belongs to One moment in sacrifice (the direst) and you can also argue the contrary. It's too hard to pin down one way or the other.
    – bobsmith76
    Aug 5, 2022 at 12:33
  • @PeterShor: I guess you were thinking of “I saw a peacock with a fiery tail”, recalled in my answer. Nov 14, 2023 at 19:25
  • @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine: that was it. Thanks for identifying it.
    – Peter Shor
    Nov 14, 2023 at 20:22

2 Answers 2


No idea if this helps, but there was a popular form called the frottola in the late medieval Italy (and possibly Provence before that?), which is built out of cryptic pseudo-proverbs. Petrarch wrote a famous one in the 1300s, now referenced as poem 105 in his Rime or Canzoniere. You can find a discussion of it here (it begins midway down the page): Peterson 2016, p. 86ff.

Is Hart Crane doing something similar? I think so, although he surely didn't have this tradition in mind. He is plying cryptic phrases that sound "poetic" together, so arguably it's the same game of Word Salad.

I believe Crane used this type of evasive yet provocative impressionism both to conceal his real subject matter (homosexual escapades, usually); and more importantly, to reach for that sublime incandescence he was so capable of capturing. "False units" kinda describes the evasive aspect. I would not want to overdetermine the device, however; so I prefer to think of these not as semantic "units" but more neutrally as "strokes" or "gestures," borrowing the terminology of painting and dance, which were such fecund and influential modernist endeavors.

  • Cool, Petrarch was one of my favorites back in the early 00s so I definitely gotta take another look at him.
    – bobsmith76
    Aug 8, 2022 at 0:07

A similar device is the basis of a traditional/anonymous British 17th century semi-nonsense poem, probably the one recalled by Peter Shor in comments:

I saw a Peacock with a fiery tail
I saw a blazing Comet drop down hail
I saw a Cloud with Ivy circled round
I saw a sturdy Oak creep on the ground
I saw a Pismire swallow up a Whale    [pismire = ant]
I saw a raging Sea brim full of Ale
I saw a Venice Glass sixteen foot deep
I saw a Well full of men’s tears that weep
I saw their Eyes all in a flame of fire
I saw a House as big as the Moon and higher
I saw the Sun even in the midst of night
I saw the Man that saw this wondrous sight

(Text and supposed date taken from Poems on the Underground, on which more background here; Google Books turns up several versions of it in 19th-century sources, but I’ve not found any authoritative discussion of its origin.)

This version is more straightforward than the question’s examples from Crane and Mallarmé — here the text, unpunctuated, is syntactically ambiguous between a single clear “wrong reading” when sentences are broken at line-ends and an equally clear “correct reading” when sentences are taken to end mid-line instead. But this kind of simple ambiguity between two different grammatical parsings — also seen in many puns — underlies the subtler versions used in serious poetry.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.